Jake Arrieta, Chris Sale and a golden era for Chicago
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Having Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta in the same town is like walking into a packed restaurant and being told by the maître d’ that he might be able to add a chair to a table in the back, the one with Mr. Clapton, Mr. Page and their guitars.
We’re in the right place at the right time. We’re in a city big enough to support two baseball teams, those two teams found two brilliant pitchers who now are at the top of their games and we stumbled into the treasure, through no merit of our own.
What the two men are doing, Sale for the White Sox and Arrieta for the Cubs, borders on the preposterous. Sale is the fourth big-league pitcher since 1950 to go 9-0 in his first nine starts. Three of those starts ended in complete games, including his 2-1, 107-pitch, no-walk victory against the Astros on Thursday. His earned-run average is 1.58, which means he joins the New York Giants’ Sal Maglie as the only pitchers in major-league history to win their first nine starts with an ERA under 2.00.
Arrieta has thrown two no-hitters in a short period — Aug. 30 against the Dodgers and April 21 against the Reds. He’s due for another one in, what, June? After an 8-1 victory over the Giants on Friday, he’s 8-0 with a 1.29 ERA. Oh, and he hadn’t lost a game since July 25.
The two pitchers are as different as the arm with which they earn their money. Sale is a lefty, throws side-armed and, despite years in the gym and the refrigerator, remains as skinny as a pipe cleaner. On his follow-through, his glove hand goes flying up behind him, sometimes in a half circle on a maximum-effort throw. It’s pretty much Twister on a mound.
Arrieta is a righty with a three-quarters throwing motion and very little wasted body movement. If you look at photos of him at the top of his delivery, he is almost always leaning back in an exaggerated fashion, as if someone in his past told him that rearing back and firing isn’t an expression but a way of life. His physique is less major-league baseball and more Muscle Beach.
But the two pitchers get to the same place at the same time – very, very fast. Both have high-90s heat. They also have evil breaking balls. If you’re a left-handed hitter facing Sale, you have to try to dismiss the legitimate fear that his side-armed delivery is going to take your head off. Seeing as how lefties have hit .201 against him in his career, you are not succeeding.
Sale mostly keeps his approach on the mound to himself.
“I’m just trying to hit my spots,’’ he said after Thursday’s outing. “Location, location, location.”
Arrieta is an open book. Actually, he’s an open technical manual.
“I didn’t command the ball really all that well, especially with my sinking fastball,’’ he told reporters after a game against the Nationals and Bryce Harper earlier this month. “I was erratic around the strike zone. There were times where I tried to backdoor some off-speed to (Harper), and I missed under the strike zone on the inner half of the plate, which made it tough for (catcher Tim Federowicz) to really handle those pitches.’’
When has Chicago had this kind of excellence on both sides of town at the same time? One website mentioned 2003, when the Sox’ Esteban Loaiza finished second in Cy Young award voting in the American League and the Cubs’ Mark Prior finished third in the National League. Sorry, no. They weren’t the Sale-Arrieta combo in all its power and glory.
In 1992, the Cubs’ Greg Maddux won the NL Cy Young award with a 20-11 record and a 2.18 ERA. Jack McDowell went 20-10 with a 3.18 ERA for the Sox that season and finished second in AL Cy Young voting. Close, but not closer enough.
In 1971, the Cubs’ Fergie Jenkins went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA and won the NL Cy Young award, and the Sox’ Wilbur Wood finished third in the AL after going 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA. But Wood was a knuckleballer. He didn’t throw heat. He threw smoke rings. Those two guys don’t fit the Arrieta-Sale mold either.
We’re seeing two power pitchers at their peak at the same time in the same town. There’s still most of a season to go. That’s not a warning. That’s a cause for celebration.